Singing Without Consonants

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Today I am having a mull over one of those exercises that has more benign unintended consequences the more you think about it. The exercise is to sing a passage without any consonants - easy to say, rather more challenging to do.

The primary purpose of this exercise is to help develop legato. By taking out the word sounds that interrupt the flow of the voice, you can focus on producing a genuinely continuous vocal line. My first singing teacher used the metaphor that the voice is line a washing line and the consonants the clothes pegs: they articulate the line, but do not cut through it. When I found this metaphor a little too feminine-domestic for my liking, my friend Sarra provided the alternative image of cable clips over a wire, which is now my preferred image.

The first thing that emerges from this exercise is the discovery that legato isn't just a matter of joined-up singing (to use the literal translation from the Italian), but has a lot to do with vowel placement too. Taking out the consonants reveals how much we tend to over-articulate when moving from one vowel shape to the next.

But a whole host of other things emerge at the same time:

  • People find it easier to hear (and thus respond to) the harmonies when they come in an uninterrupted flow
  • People have to work more actively to maintain the tempo together than when they are relying on consonants to articulate rhythmic elements
  • People find it easier to maintain their breath through the phrase
  • People start bringing out more of the melodic shape within their parts
  • There is a much more consistent and clean use of head tone, even in the lower parts of the voice

It is the last one that I have been thinking about in particular. Accessing a good, floaty, head placement is a Good Thing not just for the music (lightness of tone, ring, avoiding a heavy or harsh sound) but also for the voice (you are less likely to run into problems with hoarseness as you get tired). When people drop through the passaggio into their lower registers too heavily, it not only affects the blend of an ensemble, it makes it hard for them to come back up into their mid- and higher ranges.

So, finding an exercise that helps people keep their head placement open and accessible is always going to be useful. But why should taking the consonants out do this?

I suspect that voiced consonants may be a significant element here in pulling us down out of the head voice. I suspect that in speech we form these sounds with a heavier contact between the vocal folds than you would to sing, and that when we respond to verbal meaning, we bring our habits of verbal communication with us. (Also, one of things that can cause scooping is where a singer starts a word on a voiced consonant at speech pitch then opens up to a sung vowel that is higher in pitch.)

So by taking out consonants, you take out the hidden habitual glottal attacks we use routinely within speech. Indeed, on first introducing this exercise, you sometimes need to spend a little while helping people removing glottal attacks from the sung texture. And once people are up into that resonant, legato placement, without distractions to pull them out of it, the payoff becomes musical as well as vocal, with the enhanced responses to melodic shape and harmonic colour.

In the midst of an I Lombardi run I'd say the heavier contact thing on consonants in speech is partly right, but is more symptom than cause.

It's symptomatic of the fact that in everyday conversation, because of a lack of legato and proper resonating space, there's also too much excess pressure given onto each vowel in a syllable and this habit tends to carry over wholescale into sung lines. No idea whether this could be proved, but I suspect it's also exacerbated by a fashionable mistake in teaching that Singing is essentially modified speech and thus the speaking and singing voices overlap more than they do (Britain seems particularly guilty of this as far as I can make out), which causes not enough conscious effort going into setting the Singing Voice up properly with proper Italianate Legato as the basis (Exhibits A and B, the Voice Type categorised as an "English Tenor", and the vogue in Baroque Music for disembodied singing a la Emma Kirkby).

One of the underrated benefits of starting with/mastering Italian music (or French as a proximate stepping stone) is that it's the best for simplifying how to approach consonants. In practice, there is no such thing as a consonant interrupting the airflow in singing - or rather, even if this is technically true it is not a beneficial mindset to have; even if a note is shorter or has a "voiced" consonant, that consonant is sung through on Bel Canto support as a Soft Default. Once that is developed then you can apply it to other languages.

We often also forget a consonant is the end-point of articulation, not the start, which is why so many of the metaphors are counter-productive.

The Washing Line and Pegs one is particularly egregious because it often causes singers to sing with inadequate physicality; unsurprising given a Washing Line is often static between two points and the clamping on of pegs is a "locking" movement rather than a "tapping" movement - in practice it's unsurprising that a Singer will not spin the voice on the breath support properly and either "clamp" the consonants too much or not articulate them enough if they're given this kind of visual.

On Speaking/Singing Voice - The comments on this clip are instructive; with surprise being expressed on various occasions at how Warren's voice sounds very different to how you'd imagine it based on how he sings.

And Singing:

Thanks for your detailed comment Chris, and for making me revisit this post from a decade ago. Interesting your thoughts on the washing line/cable metaphors and their drawbacks - by necessity metaphors only capture part of the experience they are intended to illuminate. I'd not come across this particular downside in practice,* but I can quite see how it could happen and now you've said that I'll be alert for it in future. I was recently reflecting on the other common image of a knife snicking a flow of water, and of the difficulties of splashing that can ensue...

*possibly because of other exercises I'd be likely to using at the same time - I am reminded of my reflections on the relation between legato and support in another post from around that era:

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